The allure of ‘the Warrny’: what makes the Melbourne to Warrnambool Classic so special

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This Saturday morning, nearly 300 riders will take to the startline of the 100th edition of the Melbourne to Warrnambool Classic, Australia’s oldest one-day bike race and the second-oldest one-day bike race in the world (after Liege-Bastogne-Liege).

This isn’t a story of one of the past winners or even one of the top contenders for this year’s 278.6km race — it’s the story of a man whose imagination was captured by the race’s 120-year history and that man’s respect for the hardest one-day race on the Australian calendar.

Brendan Rowbotham has raced ‘the Warrny’ 16 times. He’s not a young protege of the sport — Brendan is more like you and me. He’s in his mid-40s, he’s an executive at an insurance firm working long hours, he has two young kids, and he’s been racking up 700 kilometres of training per week in the past couple months leading up to his 17th attempt at the race this Saturday.

“I’ve had 14 finishes and two DNFs so far,” said Brendan who will be racing with the Hampton Cycles Masters Race team. “This one I’ll be aiming for my 15th finish.”

“My first one was a DNF in 1994. As a relatively beginner cyclist, only 24, I underestimated how hard the Warrny was. I just didn’t have the k’s in my legs. It was a handicap; we got caught at the 180km mark.

“I remember scratch coming from behind really fast. Peter [“the Bulldog”] Besanko was in that race and I remember them coming and the panic in our bunch as we were being caught. I was spat out the back as quickly as I could say my name!

“I was on my own and my speed dropped to 12km/h with the wind being so brutal. I pulled the pin only 5km later.”

It wasn’t being part of the race that initially captured Brendan’s imagination; it was hearing commentary of the race over the radio.

“I was picked up by my handler and I was a blithering mess at that point. I remember listening to the race commentary on the radio and I remember hearing that Peter Besanko attacked heading into Warrnambool near the raceway,” Brendan said. “I remember getting goosebumps listening to the race being called and thinking right at that moment that this is a race that deserves a different approach.

“It deserves more respect, and from that moment on I was driven to ride this race as best as I could.”

Like anyone with an affinity for the Warrny, Brendan has dreamt of winning it and has seen the winning move unfold right before his eyes on several occasions. His most memorable edition was in 2001; a day that was won by Dave McKenzie.

Brendan 'Snowy' Rowbotham after a hard day of motorpacing in preparation for the Warrny
Brendan ‘Snowy’ Rowbotham after a hard day of motorpacing in preparation for the Warrny
“I was in the break with him for 250km that day,” Brendan recalls. “Eight of us got away in Werribee, which was 30km into the bike race. To be there in the final when we actually started racing and the attacks started flying was really special.

“David Pell, Andrew Torney, and a French guy named Alexander Chouffe and Corey Sweet were there. I was there when the selection was made right before McKenzie attacked to win it on McDonald’s hill. To be in that position to watch the bike race be won and be part of the last eight guys (I came in seventh) …

Brendan was also in the right move in 2008; a move that featured Richie Porte.

“I was in the front break, and from memory I came third in the 200km title and beat Richie Porte to the line of that. I was feeling so good that year,” Brendan said. “Richie got away after Camperdown and it was Jonny Clarke who bridged across to Richie. I tried to go but didn’t quite make it, and right then a breakaway (containing eventual winner Zak Dempster) came up on us.

“I went too deep trying to bridge across and they hit me as soon as they caught me and got shelled at the 230km mark. Rookie mistake and I was so gutted. I would never have won it, but I was definitely in the right move up at the front.”

Brendan's 14 Warrny finisher medals.
Brendan’s 14 Warrny finisher medals.

There’s no hiding in a race like the Warrny. If you haven’t done the work, you’ll get found out, as Brendan discovered in 2009.

“The year Joel Pearson first won it, I was as unfit as I’ve ever been. I got in the winning early break, and I remember kicking myself because we were nine minutes up the road,” Brendan explained. “As soon as we got 200km in with that climb I got spat out the ass. I hadn’t done the work but had an opportunity to be in the front.”

The route and format for the Melbourne to Warrnambool has changed many times in its first 99 editions. From 1895 to 1995 it was a handicap race but in 1996 it took its current form as a scratch race. The length of the race, too, has fluctuated; anywhere from 250km up to almost 300km. In 2009 the race start was moved to Werribee, shortening the race to roughly 260km. At the same time several decisive hills where introduced near Camperdown.

But despite these changes in route, distance and parcours, is there a pattern to where the race is won and lost?

“100%. The bike race is settled in the crosswinds section leading into Camperdown,” Brendan told CyclingTips. “There’s a stretch of road heading into Camperdown and without doubt that’s the first real selection place for the contenders.

“You’ve also got to get to that 200km mark at the hill at Camperdown pushing 430 watts for five minutes to keep up with the leaders. That hill at Camperdown completely changed the race.”

So what advice does Brendan Rowbotham have for riders taking on the race this weekend?

“The Warrny is a long game. You just gotta be calm and stick to your nutrition program,” Brendan said. “Don’t waste an ounce of energy all day until you absolutely need to put in on the line.

“The Warrny is seven hours of concentration. A lot of people lose their concentration and … do silly things. It’s a mind game as much as it’s a body game.

“Things will and do go wrong – don’t panic. The race splits and comes back together quite a lot. Make friends with the people around you. You never know when you’ll need to call a favour with someone to let you in on their wheel when it’s a tough section, close a gap, or even hand you a gel when you need it.”

Those that have raced the Warrny a few times know that while the front of the field is strong, the remainder of the field is full of riders just wanting to finish. The qualification requirements have come under criticism in the past and some fear that the Warrny will lose its stature if a high standard isn’t kept.

Brendan has seen many variations of the race and wants his kids to be able to race the Warrny just as he’s been fortunate enough to.

“I’m loving the fact that it has such a huge participation from the NRS riders and now the elite women,” Brendan said [ed. 25 women are on this year’s startlist, the greatest ever female participation by a considerable margin]. “I do wonder, in time, if it needs to be a purely one-day elite race in its own right.”

“It would be a great market for a mass participation event, but also to up the standard of the elite race [to] really attract 150 of the best from around the world to contest the win.

“I’d love to see it become a real classic one-day UCI race. There needs to be a balance to make sure that every club rider can have a go, but also protecting the heritage of the race and keeping its stature.”

“There’s no other feeling in the world like racing up Raglan Parade amongst all the people and the cheers. It’s pretty emotional when you finish the Warrny and people who are first doing it probably won’t realise it until they get there.”

And for Brendan’s goals on Saturday? He humbly states, “I just want to finish it mate.”

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